South Africa are in a commanding position going into day three of the first Test at Newlands.
Given that South Africa are effectively 142-2 in their second innings and with three days of cricket remaining in a low-scoring match at Newlands, it’s no wonder that the bookies make the home side 1-7 favourites to win the opening Test against India.
For those not into the betting side of sport, that means the bookies are saying that for every R100 you put on a South African victory you’ll get R114 back in return. If you want to spend R100 on India winning, you’ll get R850 in return and if you put the same amount on a draw, you’d receive R1 300.
Advantage South Africa then.
Given that these odds were available after the news that Dale Steyn had been ruled out of bowling at India’s batsmen in the second innings due to a heel injury and that there were weather forecasts suggesting a drop or two of welcome rain in Cape Town on Sunday, it shows how far ahead South Africa are in the game.
Some 22 wickets have fallen in the first two days and plenty more will tumble. Following the first day’s play I suggested that this game won’t reach the fifth day and I also opened a can of worms by arguing that South Africa would win this series 3-0.
I didn’t bank on Steyn hobbling off with a heel injury and as heroic as his comeback has been, the increasing impression is that the 34-year-old fast bowling great is being wished across the finishing line when it comes to breaking Shaun Pollock’s national Test record of 421 wickets.
Reports suggest he might miss the rest of this Test series and the man will be distraught, but determined to lead the attack with Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada when Australia tour in March.
It will be the elephant in the room, no matter how Steyn recovers from his latest setback. Can he be relied on to see out a four-Test series against Australia played over a month? His figures of 17.3-6-51-2 against India at Newlands brought people to their feet in the stadium and to the edges of their seats in their lounges.
Even with a nation roaring him on – and the Newlands crowd have, again, stood squarely behind their team, providing an extra man on the field at times – at what stage do the selectors make the harshest call of all?
Steyn’s second innings absence will obviously weaken South Africa’s attack. Doh! But, what it has done is change the figure in captain Faf du Plessis’ head when it comes to setting India a target.
Du Plessis now has to give his team time to bowl India out again – and yet he won’t want to give India a sniff of an unlikely win in the first of three Tests. Steyn’s injury has changed the complexion of the match, even if the Proteas are well ahead after two days.
The captain will need to be wary of not being too conservative in setting a total, because he is a bowler light, and he should still encourage aggression – with both bat and ball.
This Test has moved forward quickly and will continue to do so, despite Steyn’s absence with the ball. The ball has beaten the bat so many times on a brilliantly-prepared Test match pitch that no batsman has ever felt ‘in’.
Days two and three are always the best for batting and Du Plessis’ decision to bat first under tough conditions has been vindicated. Sunday might see the ball do a few tricks, especially if the predicted cloud cover arrives, but at ‘142-2’, South Africa are in a good space.
For the batsmen, it’s been those who have shown aggression who have benefited and that should be the theme for the rest of the game. AB de Villiers set the trend, coming in at 7-2 on the first day, and hitting 65 off 84 balls. Du Plessis himself (62 off 104 balls) refused to get bogged down and then Quinton de Kock (43 off 40) and Maharaj (35 off 47) accelerated the game.
Hardik Pandya arrived at the crease with India 76-5 and they quickly stumbled to 92-7 but he took on the bowlers. The all-rounder finished with 93 off 95 balls and hit 14 fours and a six. He also threw South Africa’s bowlers off their stride.
Aiden Markram adopted the same tactics at the top of the South African second innings and died by the sword when on 34 off 43 balls. ‘Experts’ slaughtered him, but that’s the way to play on this pitch.
Fortune favours the brave.
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images